Utah has officially become the latest state to sue TikTok for allegedly exposing children to harmful content in violation of consumer protection law.
Utah’s Division of Consumer Protection only recently filed the firmly worded action against ByteDance-owned TikTok. Long the subject of criticism about user privacy, content moderation policies, and its alleged role as a propaganda tool, the video-sharing app is currently prohibited on government devices in the EU and a number of states.
But with a much-discussed countrywide ban having thus far failed to materialize in the U.S., states including Arkansas are suing the service. Montana, for instance, is pursuing a full-scale ban of TikTok, which European regulators slapped with a roughly $370 million fine last month for alleged children’s privacy shortcomings.
And Indiana in a December of 2022 complaint maintained that Beijing-headquartered ByteDance had broken consumer protection law “by misleading and deceiving parents about the safety and appropriateness of its application for young users.”
Utah’s initially mentioned lawsuit against TikTok appears similar to Indiana’s complaint in several ways – while also expanding upon multiple involved arguments.
According to the heavily redacted public version of the 60-page action, “TikTok intentionally designed and deployed an addictive product to bring itself financial gain by monetizing the attention of young users.”
“With young users, TikTok can more easily exploit the not-yet-fully-developed brain’s reward system to create habitual dependence on the app,” the multifaceted legal text continues. “By combining big data and social network pressures with addictive design tactics, TikTok targets young consumers’ particular susceptibility to dopamine manipulation.”
Meanwhile, the complaint connects the points to Utah’s sizable population of children and teens (the state of 3.3 million is said to have “the largest percentage of children per capita in the nation”) and troubling stats concerning a potential mental-health crisis among minors.
“To maximize engagement,” the suit reads, “TikTok uses a dopamine-inducing algorithm that spoon-feeds users a steady diet of highly personalized short-form videos, making it difficult for children to unplug, which TikTok amplifies with a series of manipulative features designed to keep users on the app.
“Unfortunately, the result is that TikTok’s youngest, most vulnerable users become trapped, spending excessive, unhealthy amounts of time on the app, which TikTok knows is contributing to a mental health crisis among teens in Utah.”
Elsewhere in the all-encompassing suit, Utah’s Division of Consumer Protection describes TikTok’s alleged “manipulative design feature” as well as the alleged negative impact thereof on Utah children and teens. Moreover, this design feature and the aforesaid algorithm allegedly push “harmful content, including content about weight loss, dieting, self-harm, and worse.”
Lastly, these and other issues are allegedly compounded by TikTok’s failure “to remove violative content as promised” and to verify users’ ages, besides security concerns stemming from its ownership status and its alleged function as “a perfect playground for child predators.”
“Despite TikTok telling the public that the app is a safe place for children,” the action spells out, “TikTok does not adequately moderate predatory behavior, leaving more children exposed to predators through comments, video likes, direct messages, and in other harmful ways, such as leading vulnerable children off the TikTok app to engage with them in person.”
In a statement, Utah attorney general Sean Reyes emphasized the “compelling case” against TikTok and the far-reaching significance of the suit for children and parents.
“My top priority is protecting our children in Utah,” said Reyes. “I’m tired of TikTok lying to Utah parents. I’m tired of our kids losing their innocence and even their lives addicted to the dark side of social media.
“TikTok will only change if put at legal risk—and ‘at risk’ is where they have left our youth in exchange for profit and greed. Immediate and pervasive threats require swift and bold responses. We have a compelling case against TikTok. Our kids are worth the fight,” he concluded.